Date 26th March 2022
Society Guildburys Theatre Company
Venue The Electric Theatre, Guildford
Type of Production Play
Director Claire Evans
Written By Mike Bartlett


Author: Pauline Surrey

This was a fascinating play, full of marvellous lines, humour, sadness, and great characters. In the ruins of a large and formerly famous garden and house in rural England, which was once a family home, one woman searches for the seeds of hope, aiming to restore the garden to its former glory. It was written in 2017, in that fractious period between the referendum and the actual exit from the EU. It deals with what it means to be British today, and how the nation has changed and is changing. Yet it is also the tale of one family and seven other people, and all the complex relationships between them.  It leaves one with an interesting mood, and will I think stay with its audience for a long while. In short, it was a brilliant evening’s theatre.

Guildburys can always be relied upon to produce an exceedingly interesting and well-designed programme. We were given a piece on Mike Bartlett, a very useful Director’s Note, a piece on allegory in literature, and one on the play itself and its inspiration, Hidcote Gardens in the Cotswolds, which included some beautiful photos of that garden to get us in the mood. Good cast photos, and sections on NODA and GATA (Guildford Amateur Theatre Association) completed this excellent production.

The set, of a neglected and run down once glorious garden, was very evocative. The projected backdrop changed with the time of day, the weather, and the changing seasons, and was always fascinating to observe. A huge tree with hexagonal tree seat was the middle point of the set and played its own important role. Lighting was at times dramatic, and always very effective. A lovely old metal set of garden furniture added to the atmosphere, draped with a blanket in the winter. Flowers appeared in the beds, and roses bloomed around the rose arch as the summer arrived. A sundial suggested the passing of time, and a rather important trowel also played its part.

A lovely selection of English pastoral music led us into each act. Contrasting background music to accompany the party scene and the local open-air festival were effective, as was the loud crashing music which accompanied Anna’s wild, yearning and mournful dance.

Costumes were interesting. Smart country wear for Audrey, Paul and their neighbour Edward contrasted well with Zara’s youthful city attire and Katherine’s rather gorgeous purple outfit. Later the murder mystery party outfits were elegant, and for the ladies, beautiful. Audrey’s city outfit in the final act showed how she had shut herself off from her garden project, as she went about relinquishing her hopes and selling the house.

The Production got off to a great start with the entrance of Matthew, the old gardener who had tended the garden all his working life, and his wife Cheryl, who had cleaned it. Kim Ferguson was splendid as Matthew, with a wonderful country burr, and excellent comic timing. He was well matched in Barbara Tresidder as Cheryl, and their partnership, their outlook on life, their gentle humour were exceedingly believable, and it was always a joy to see them appear on stage.

Rather a contrast then to meet Audrey, the new owner of the garden and house (in that order in her eyes), which she had known as a child while it had been owned by her uncle. She seemed steely, fixated, bombastic, obsessed, with a one-track mind. Her clipped ‘home counties’ tone was in direct juxtaposition to Matthew and Cheryl’s gentle voices and relaxed way of looking at life and accepting their position in it. She ruled her family, or thought she did, she certainly expected to, no ‘letting go’ for her. A masterful performance from Cheryl Malam. And yet, and yet, we saw a different side to her later on, on her birthday, only slightly though.

We had already met her daughter Zara, (Sophie Walker), who hated being uprooted from her London life, and was resentful, moody, angry. One sensed there was trouble to come, and that Audrey would have some learning to do, even though she would strive against it. Before Audrey’s appearance, Zara had been surprised by the arrival in the garden of young Gabriel (Gwithian Evans), ostensibly the window cleaner, who had come to see if his services would be required. Zara’s reaction had been quite dismissive, snobbish even. Gradually, as she got to know more about him and his ambitions, a friendship developed. All this was well drawn by the two actors, a gentle building up of respect, in her case, and admiration in his.

Paul, Audrey’s poor husband, who watched her machinations with a somewhat perplexed gaze, and tried to interject some humour and humanity into the proceedings (all of that lost on Audrey), was played wonderfully well by Jonathan Constant. One kept wondering what was going on in his head, as he watched the fractious conversations between his wife and daughter, or her outright rejection of her pleasant neighbour Edward (David Hall) regarding hosting the local village festival, or her snobbish reaction to the gentle Gabriel. And yet, there was a fondness there on his part, hence the finding and buying the historic trowel for her birthday, and his comforting presence when that birthday turned out to be such a disaster. He was very supportive of all her plans – to restore, and then to sell up, and then to restore again. Constant brought out all this subtlety so well.

Katherine Sanchez, glamorous old university friend of Audrey’s visits and is revealed to Audrey to be a famous novelist. ‘Why didn’t I know?’. Famous novelist she might be, but the glitzy life she leads covers over her sense of not having really lived. ‘I live a life of imagining what I’ve missed.’ Gilly Fick portrayed this sadness, this uncertainty, this feeling out of place in Audrey’s so secure world exceedingly well.  It seemed an odd, and indeed perplexing friendship. As Katherine said: ‘I ask YOU questions. What do you EVER ask about me? I’m a supporting character in your story.’

Surely such great characterisation and depth was the result of superb direction by Claire Evans and great teamwork among the cast, right down to the tilt of the head, the glances, the silences, and the pace of the dialogue, which gave the audience time to absorb the many nuances in these complex relationships.

A love affair ensued between Zara and Katherine. The conversations and arguments between the shocked Audrey who feels her citadel is being threatened, and the smitten Katherine, are marvellous – feelings versus no feelings. Super performances here again.

This is what makes such a play, and this particular production of it, so fascinating – one is always wondering what is going on in the heads of these such well-crafted characters.

Anna, the girlfriend of Audrey’s son, who had been killed in some foreign conflict, was a persistent presence, and was the only one who confronted Audrey, at first a quiet niggling presence, later a roaring one. A superb performance by Gabi King, raw emotion and distress, and frank disgust with Audrey and everything she stood for.

Audrey’s frustration with Cheryl’s slow plodding efforts at cleaning, led to her contacting the wonderfully efficient and personable Krystina. This is the home help we would all love to have – unobtrusive, turning her hand to anything, quick and friendly enough, never over-friendly. Claire Howes was absolutely right for this role, and her Polish accent was perfect throughout, an impeccable performance.

I could continue by discussing the way the various themes were dealt with during the play – England post Brexit, interpersonal relationships, the overpowering mother figure, ambitions, control, a couple facing dementia, how one deals with grief, and many many more.

Let me just say that this production benefitted from a great Director, superb casting, and very fine, nuanced performances. This was theatre at its very best, with bucketfuls of food for thought. What more could one ask for?

Show photos by Phill Griffith